JoCo counselor offers tips for kids and families dealing with stress, anxiety and isolation during pandemic this winter

With COVID-19 cases still at high levels and the prospect of remote learning continuing into the near future, local counselor Carron Montgomery has some tips on how to cope this winter. File photo credit Getty Images.

With COVID-19 cases still at high levels and the prospect of remote learning continuing into the near future, local counselor Carron Montgomery has some tips on how to cope this winter.

A licensed professional counselor and registered play therapist, Montgomery wants to help teachers and parents recognize the stressors in their students’ lives and find ways to help them identify and address their anxiety, worry and sense of overwhelming that dominates the learning environment.

“The brain is a muscle, and it hasn’t been used in this way for eight months, and so we have to give it brain breaks,” Montgomery said. “The teachers are all doing the best that they can. Their job is to teach, and they can’t wear 17 hats. They’re being held to the standard of we can’t get kids behind. That’s what they’re driven by. But what they need to understand is when a kid is flooded or anxious, or their brain goes offline, they’re not capable of learning.

“It’s no one’s fault, we just need to do a very coordinated community approach in order to truly meet these kids’ needs.”

Feelings of suffocation, anxiety and despair

Montgomery heard some alarming comments from some of the students she’s helping. In general, many of them have difficulty concentrating and have feelings of panic and suffocation. They feel like they have endless work to do and have fears of failure.

“For these kids, it seems like there’s no end in sight,” Montgomery said. “It’s a global loss of control and a feeling of uncertainty, along with compassion fatigue of parents, teachers, kids, society as a whole.” File photo.

“For these kids, it seems like there’s no end in sight,” she said. “It’s a global loss of control and a feeling of uncertainty, along with compassion fatigue of parents, teachers, kids, society as a whole.”

Here are some of the quotes from her clients that Montgomery shared:

  • “It’s like I’m being suffocated and choked to death by school in general and can’t get pressure off of me, and I can’t breathe.”
  • “We don’t even care about getting in trouble because there is nothing our parents can take away.”
  • “I feel like I’m going brain dead.”
  • “I’m in a constant state of anxiety, worry, depression, and can’t move past it.”
  • “I don’t know anyone my age who isn’t depressed or anxious.”
  • “I want to escape my head, my reality, my sadness.”
  • “It feels like no one is listening”

Concerns for student mental health grows as learning shifts online

Colby Ritter, a mother with children in Shawnee Mission schools, has been frustrated and worried for her children’s mental health as they struggle to learn this year.

“I feel like I can’t scream it loud enough from the rooftops these days,” Ritter said. “At points, it feels like no one is listening. They have been given an impossible task at an extremely young age, that I have to imagine most grown adults would fail at if they were forced to do the same things that we’re asking of these very young, and quite frankly immature, adults.”

A mother with kids in Shawnee Mission schools said she’s worried about the impact remote learning is having on her children’s mental health. File photo.

Ritter’s children cope with the necessities of isolation during the pandemic by staying digitally connected with their friends. They try to find joy where they can, and have found ways to get to know each other as a family, and to reach out to their friends and neighbors in safe, distanced ways.

But learning is a whole different story. It’s difficult to connect with teachers in the remote environment; she blames people for not taking the pandemic seriously, thus putting her children’s education and mental health in jeopardy.

“He was seeing his friends, he was happy, he was engaged with his teachers, he was getting consistent feedback on his work and was overall proud of his work,” Ritter said. “Having to tell your child that they’re going back to a learning model that is the worst possible solution for their learning type, for their mental health, is gut wrenching. All of these people who are not taking precautions and not helping us get into a better space, I wish they were the ones that had to deliver that news to him.”

Here are some mental health and wellness tips Montgomery shared with the Shawnee Mission Post:

Make a winter bubble plan

Montgomery’s bubble plan looks something like this:

  1. Be creative — Find a creative outlet such as drawing, writing, cooking or anything that involves you creating or making something. This should create a sense of completion.
  2. Move your body — Find ways to get in some cardio activity and elevate your heart rate for at least 20 minutes each day.
  3. Connect safely with friends — Schedule FaceTime/Zoom/other-video-platform dates with friends. Be safe and smart about meeting in person, preferably outdoors, masked up, physically distanced, etc.
  4. Spend time alone — Being stuck at home means it can be difficult to get away from others in your household. Find time to just be alone and do a mental check in with yourself.
  5. Family time — Find time to be together as a family. Consider building on family traditions and finding different activities that everyone enjoys.

Identify and understand emotions

Place an emotion poster, wheel or app in the kitchen or gathering room. When your child names an emotion, help them to sift through it to understand what the emotion is telling them. Do they need safety? Connection? Clarity? By naming these emotions and needs, you can work together to help them be agents in their own mental health.

Self-regulate your emotions first

Practice self-regulating your own emotions first. This provides children with co-regulation. Montgomery noted that children unable to self-regulate need to rely on a calmer, more regulated brain. Science has shown the power of mirror neurons and how someone’s emotional state can directly impact another’s in a negative or positive way.

Have students take brain breaks from learning

  • Create transitional activities to give students’ minds a break between tasks.
  • Try breathing exercises and yoga poses.

Try these self-calming techniques

When children feel overwhelmed or anxious, help them to discern “what if” from “what is.” Take them out of the habit of thinking “what if” and instead bring them into the moment of “what is.” Have them try the following steps to re-regulate and become more resilient:

  • Have children notice and take stock of sensations in their bodies, and then show them how to calm themselves through things like breathing.
  • Take a mindful inhale of 4 seconds and a slow exhale of 6 seconds.
  • Have them take notice of their feet, and feel the grounding of the floor or a chair.
  • Pay attention to the room and notice at least 8 colors. Feel the texture of 5 different things.

Here are links to some additional resources: